The ties that bind Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto to his family business (a renowned neighborhood restaurant in Chicago) and to the culinary craft that he’s perfected in the years since he went away to prove himself have gotten all tangled at the start of The Bear, a new FX dramedy premiering with all episodes on Hulu today. Starring former Shameless star Jeremy Allen White, the show fixates less on the art of cuisine and more on the choreography through chaos on display when a team comes together to get people fed. The show is, in one word, intense, as expectations (some self-imposed, some not) and obligations push down on Carmy’s shoulders every day while he leads his mismatched team of old-school loudmouths and ambitious newcomers. But every day he pushes back, determined to take on the burden of a legacy that’s been thrust upon him by a death in the family.
“You’re really meeting him at his most fragile and vulnerable. The worst thing he could have imagined happening in his life just happened to him,” said White when we spoke with him recently. In this moment, he’s talking about what drew him to the character and the show. It was enough to topple concerns about typecasting after years of playing a taxed Chicago kid trying to do right by his dysfunctional family on Shameless. “It was just too hard to walk away from, my heart really broke for Carmy,” says White.
While the geography and a few other surface elements may seem similar, these characters are very different, with Lip on Shameless often driven to self-destruction and Carmy bottling everything up as he waits to see if he can succeed before bursting open. Here’s White on that intensity, the rigorous culinary training camp he endured, and the icon and iconic performances he borrows from in The Bear.
This kind of feels like Uncut Gems in a kitchen. It’s so busy and fast-paced. Is that exhausting?
I think that was a movie that Chris Storer [writer/executive producer/director]and I spoke about in prep. We wanted to kind of feel that anxiety throughout. The energy [is] really, really high. The pilot was exhausting and we also did it very quickly over six or seven days. But I think that kind of intensity and speed lent itself to the show.
And certainly, the environment that the show portrays within a kitchen.
Working on a line, the chaos of that, there’s a rhythm to it. How did you pull that off?
Before the pilot, we had a fair amount of time to kind of rehearse and be in that space. Ayo (Edebiri, who plays Carmy’s second in command) and I went to a two-week kind of crash course in culinary school. And then she went to work at a couple of restaurants, I think in LA. And I worked at a restaurant in LA, a different restaurant and then also worked with a really wonderful chef in New York. So, we kind of separated after that. But Ayo and I got to know each other through learning to cook, which was really nice. And then the rhythm of it and stuff like that. I see a lot of similarities between working in a kitchen and working on a film or television crew.
The pace is there, making the day. And I also think with kitchens, at a certain level, every night is a performance. There are moments where it’s magic hour and everybody’s really hustling. And there are moments on a Friday night at 9:00 where the line is fucked and everybody’s working really hard. I guess the anxiety of a kitchen felt sort of familiar to me through having worked on sets for a long time.
As you’re shooting the one-shot episode [episode 7, which takes place during a particularly tense day at the restaurant and which is shot as a single shot], you have a really explosive moment that has to come at the exact right time and at the exact right level. What’s in your headspace?
I think I really wanted Carmy throughout the season to feel really fragile. To feel like one wrong turn or somebody says the wrong thing and he could kind of pop. And so I think I knew going into that day, I just had to come in and kind of be wound up and anxious. I think the tension of possibly wasting time if I messed up a shot or if somebody else messed up the shot because we only had this one shot, that all kind of added to it. It felt like a tight rope walk for Carmy and it felt like a tight rope walk for me shooting it because I knew there was a lot at stake and one mistake could throw away a really amazing take for everybody else.
How old are you?
31, okay. And how old were you when you started Shameless?
18, when I started.
Did you find yourself at the start pulling inspiration more directly from other performances and other performers? And then how does that kind of grow as you get older?
I don’t know if that is ever going to stop. Al Pacino was my guy when I was young, Panic In Needle Park will always be one of my favorite performances, Dog Day Afternoon. Obviously, I don’t have to go through his resume, but yes, I watch these guys. I steal things or try to steal things. I just get inspired. And I think I try to carry that with me a little bit. I think specifically for Bear, I watched Panic In Needle Park a lot before shooting the pilot. There was just something about his energy in that movie that I love, it’s magnetic. And I know I can never replicate that, but I think I was sort of chasing it and that it seems it suited this project a little bit. And then, of course, you get a little flick of a switch and a little bit of inspiration, and then yes, you run with it and you do whatever you’re going to do, but I don’t know if that’ll ever stop. I hope I can act for a very long time and people keep hiring me. And if they do, I think I’ll always be looking at actors that I admire for that inspiration or maybe a little bit of a way into a character just to get the door open a little bit. And then grow with it in your own way.
You’ve obviously spent a lot of time in Chicago. I’m curious, what’s some of the best food you’ve eaten in that area?
I experienced two very different Chicagos because for Shameless, we were there a couple of weeks a season and we would go out a lot, but I’d go out drinking a lot. Richard’s Bar is an excellent bar. It’s right next to a really great Italian restaurant called La Scarola. When I was shooting The Bear, it’s all research, I guess. And production was really lovely and set me up at some really amazing restaurants. I had one of the best meals I’ve ever had at this restaurant called Oriole, which is I believe a two, could be three Michelin stars restaurant. And it was absolutely incredible. But then also, I love to go to Portillo’s. There’s no shortage of excellent food in Chicago.
Have you always appreciated and understood the art of cooking?
I love to have a good meal and I had, I think respect, for the chefs. I like to go out to dinner. But my level of respect for people in kitchens has just exploded. I really got let in by a lot of people, so I’m really grateful. And I think it’s like being an athlete with the commitment, the amount of time. It’s really remarkable. And it’s like, I think, being an athlete or being an actor in some cases where I think you have to feel this is the only thing I can do with my life to really go far. Because it’s so much sacrifice. So, I have a tremendous amount of respect now, certainly.
What’s your skill level now in the kitchen?
Still, not great. I can fake it well. I can move around well. My knife skills are okay. And I have a couple dishes that I can do at home and stuff like that. I’m still trying to get better all the time. I hope we get to do more of the show and I just want to get better and better.
You mentioned working in a restaurant in LA in preparation for this. Can you tell me just a little bit more about that?
Totally. So, I worked at this restaurant called Pasjoli in Santa Monica. The chef there is chef Dave Beran. He worked at Alinea for a long time in Chicago and lived in Chicago for a long time. So, it was really nice to talk to him about Chicago. He knew Chicago well, he lived there for a long time. So, I felt I could ask him a lot about the food scene specifically in Chicago. But then he left and he opened a tasting menu place called Dialogue that was open for a couple years, they got a Michelin star. And then he opened Pasjoli, which is where I worked. They also just recently got a Michelin star. So, he’s very good at what he does. And it was incredible. They were all very welcoming. I just tried to show up and be respectful because I knew I wasn’t going to be helpful.
And I think they appreciated that I at least came serious and ready to work. And they really let me in, so I would do a lot of prep with them, which you’re not going to make a huge amount of mistakes during prep. I was there for around a month, I guess. And my last week or two there, they did let me work the line on Thursday nights, which is a pretty busy night. And it’s an open kitchen. So, all the diners, customers, they can see what’s going on in the kitchen. So, that was very stressful, but it also gave me a lot of confidence that they put me in that position and didn’t immediately take me off. So, I was cooking food that was served at this wonderful restaurant. And that was a really incredible experience.
And everybody lived.
And everybody lived. So, as far as I know.
‘The Bear’ is now streaming on FX on Hulu.